Saturday, September 9, 2006

A history of communal violence

Nitin Yeshwantrao | TNN

Malegaon is no stranger to communal violence. It is a township born in the shadow of violence—set up after thousands of Muslim families from Delhi fleeing the British suppression of 1857 relocated here. Others moved closer on to Mumbai and settled in Bhiwandi, its sister township where the sound of powerlooms dominates all else.

In Malegaon the majority-minority roles are reversed with three-fourths of 7.5-lakh township being Muslim, the majority of whom are from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and many from Bangladesh. Ever since the first riot in 1963—sparked by clashes between two community processions for Ganpati Visarjan and Moharram, both of which happened to fall on the same day—Malegaon has taken several hits: in the sixties, the early eighties, in 1992, and worst of all in October 2001 when the army had to be called in to restore peace. Earlier this year, in May, the police seizure of a large consignment of RDX and weapons from an electrical shop accentuated the stigma of “terror town”. Locals found that families from other parts of the state were nervous about marrying their daughter into Malegaon, a place now marked by the acronyms of SIMI, LeT and RDX.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the township is unhealthily ghettoised with the Mausam river, more nullah than river, forming an unsanitary boundary between the two populations. But while the physical segregation seems almost complete, the lives of the two communities remain deeply intertwined by the dictates of trade: the suppliers of yarn are largely Hindu, the weavers mostly Muslim. After the 1992 riots, the numerous mohalla committees set up have worked hard to bridge the divide, and the peace was won in 2003 when the torn pages of the Quran in a local mosque did not spark riots as feared.

In 2002, after the Gujarat riots, truckloads of Muslim families moved to Malegaon, among them the most iconic face of the Gujarat riots—Qutubuddin Ansari, the tailor whose desperate face haunted India after a photographer captured him pleading for mercy before a rampaging mob. Ansari worked in a garment factory in Malegaon till his picture was published in a local paper. His panic-stricken employer who wanted nothing to do with him, promptly asked him to leave.

No picture postcard, the landscape is a blight of small houses pressed up against each other on narrow streets. Swarms of pigs move around doing the job of absent drains and grim lines of handloom factories are packed with child labourers. Dim and unventilated with long working hours, the Factory Act seems to have left Malegaon unscathed.

Malegaon mayor had banned Vande Mataram
Malegaon locals are known to be a hardworking lot, slogging from morning to night in the textile and plastic factories. The average wage is Rs 300 a week, barely enough to feed the mostly large families. The five-day curfew during the 2001 riots reduced many workers to penury forcing them to depend on the charity of the local masjids to get by.

The Vande Mataram debate now being played out in the rest of India erupted here many years ago when Malegaon’s mayor Nihal Ahmed, a senior Janata Dal leader, decided to ban the song from the civic body’s daily proceedings. The decision rocked the state assembly.

In 2004, Malegaon cropped up again in the controversy surrounding the gunning down of two youngsters suspected to have links with the LeT—Ishrat Shaikh from Mumbra and her friend Javed. The IB said the two who had made trips to Lucknow, Malegaon and Ahmedabad, all LeT strongholds.

In 1997, when J P Dutta’s Border was released, Malegaon had posters on the walls advising people not to see the film as it was ‘anti-Muslim’. The producer claimed the posters had not affected the turnout. Malegaon has an active film industry which churns out home-made films such as Malegaon ke Sholay and Malegaon ki Lagaan. The films run to full houses, especially on Friday which is the weekly off, when the streets are redolent with the smell of biryani. This Friday, sadly, was different.

(The Times of India, September 9, 2006)

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